First Trails Open at 665-acre Thurston Hills Natural Area

Thurston Hills Natural Area

With 665 acres of natural area to enjoy, it’s easy to dream big about what the future holds for Thurston Hills Natural Area. Our first big achievement? Several miles of trails complete with a trailhead.

Mountain biking on Willamalane's ew McKenzie Trail east of Springfield. (Photo by Chris Pietsch)

Austin Larson tries out the bike wash station at Thurston Hills Natural Area. The park will open to mountain bikers later in the season.

The Trails

The newest trails begin at the new trailhead at 7575 McKenzie Highway. The trailhead features a parking area, walkways, lighting, restrooms, a bike wash station, and an informational kiosk that will help you navigate your adventure.

From the trailhead, you’ll embark on the North Access Trail, a 1.9-mile route with a compacted gravel surface. The North Access Trail steadily climbs the north-facing slope of the hills through conifer forests. Gradual switchbacks lead to a junction with the 1.2-mile natural surface Spine Trail.

“We call it the Spine Trail because it traverses a steep, rocky ridge in the upper portion of the natural area,” said Willamalane Natural Resources Planner Fraser MacDonald. “It makes for a beautiful, lush hike.”

At the south side of the natural area, off Bob Straub Parkway, visitors can walk or hike the 2.9-mile Thurston Hills Multi-use Path. This path, formerly known as the Weyerhaeuser Haul Road, is mostly paved but rough in spots.

Natural Habitats

The variety of habitats here — including prairie and oak savanna, bluffs, oak woodlands, rock cliffs and outcrops, springs and conifer forests — are home to an observed 33 plant species and 38 animal species. These include nine Oregon Conservation Strategy plant and animal species, which have been identified by the state as species of particular interest and priority for conservation efforts.

No threatened or endangered species live within the natural area, but sensitive rare species have been spotted, such as wayside aster and slender campion.
Western bluebirds, chipping sparrows, slender-billed nuthatches and Lewis’ woodpeckers make their homes in the oak and prairie habitat. Western gray squirrels, which may be a familiar fixture in backyards, prefer the continuous canopy of oak woodlands to dangerous roads.

Rooted in History

When visitors enter Thurston Hills Natural Area through the trailhead and journey along the North Access Trail, they are traversing what was known as the Gray Jaqua property. This area was settled around 1855. Willamalane, in partnership with the city of Springfield, purchased the entire Gray Jaqua property in 2012.

A state-designated Community Forest occupies land to the southwest of the Gray Jaqua property. This was established as Oregon’s first Community Forest with the intention of protecting the land from development and preserving it for the educational and recreational enjoyment of the community.

To the south and west of the Community Forest are two conservation easements purchased by Willamalane in 2013 and 2014. The acquisition was partially funded by the Bonneville Power Administration as part of a program to mitigate the effects of dam operations.

Community Partners

Thurston Hills Natural Area is an exciting new location for hikers and mountain bikers to explore. Our regional mountain biking community has helped with the construction of the area in a big way — more than 60 people have contributed over 600 volunteer hours of labor and professional knowledge so far. Our biggest partner has been Disciples of Dirt, a Eugene mountain bike club whose members are known throughout the Pacific Northwest as excellent stewards of local trails.

“It’s stunning that we have mountain biking opportunities coming right into town,” said Peter O’Toole, trail work coordinator for Disciples of Dirt. “We’ve been interested in developing trails in urban areas for two decades, and we’re incredibly pleased to partner with Willamalane to make this happen.”

“Everyone is super stoked for this — the whole mountain biking community,” said Misha Fuller, a Disciples of Dirt member.

There’s more to come. Willamalane has several more miles of trail planned — including a mountain bike-only downhill trail and others that hikers can use to explore this beautiful natural asset.

We’re throwing a party to celebrate the grand opening of Thurston Hills Natural Area on Saturday, Feb. 3. Please join us!

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infographic about thurston hills natural area